Women Candidates in Judicial Elections

by Angela N. Johnson

In “Women Candidates and Judicial Elections: Telling an Untold Story,” Traciel Reid discusses the barriers women experience when campaigning in state court judicial elections.  “Currently, approximately one-half of all state judges reach their state court benches by winning partisan or nonpartisan races” (Reid 2010, 465).  This begs the question, “Do aspiring women judges experience similar barriers or challenges as women running for legislative or executive office?” Id. at 465.  Reid looks critically at past regression findings which suggested that women  face little or no discrimination and that gender has a minimal effect in the judicial election process. Reid argues that the regression model fails to reveal the realities confronting women judicial candidates because previous studies have noted gender as an independent variable wherein being a woman fails to correlate with the dependent variable, the finding appears that gender has little or no bearing.  Reid takes a different approach by running regression analysis on men and women candidates separately. Her results suggest that “different forces within the electoral environment affect the campaigns of men and women and, in particular, that women must overcome specific challenges” Id. at 467.  Moreover, men have advantages that women do not have, and women encounter difficulties that men do not face. One such example from Reid’s findings is that men’s “status as incumbents helps men in funding their campaigns, whereas women incumbents receive no similar benefit.  Incumbency correlates in a statistically significant way with men’s campaign contributions.  In contrast, it has no statistically significant effect on the contributions reported by women.  Also, campaign spending (beyond a certain level) has less impact on women’s vote shares than on men’s” Id. at 467.

Reid also found that while state supreme court incumbents kept their seats at a similar rate, women judges are more likely to face challenges to their retention than are their male counterparts.  In looking at the overall retention rate for judicial incumbents facing reelection between 1998 and 2006, it is discovered that women had to work harder in their judicial elections than did men Id. at 468 citing Lawless and Pearson 2008. Additionally, women have to be better than men in order to achieve similar electoral outcomes. When comparing the need for women judicial candidates to work harder than men to gain voter confidence to that of women in congressional races, it is apparent women in both races have to overcome voters’ skepticism about their competence to perform the responsibilities of elected office. The struggles experienced with women congressional candidates and women judicial candidates is identical. However, unlike with congressional candidates, state eligibility requirements for running for a judicial seat lend credibility to women candidates. The fact that in most states candidates must hold law degrees from an ABA-approved law school can work to ease voter concerns over professional standards.  Congressional candidates, however, do not benefit by mandated minimum qualification rules.

In studying men and women who ran in the state supreme court elections between 1996 and 2006, Reid found was that a higher percentage of the women who ran in these races had served or were currently serving as state judges than had the male candidates. Having trial or appellate court experiences helped men convince voters to support them but women received no similar electoral boost Id. at 469. More specifically, less than 60% of the men had judicial experience while 83% of the women were either current state court judges or had been a trial or appellate court judge.  Women raised substantially more money than men, and men, as a group, spent about 70% less on their campaigns than did their female counterparts.  Yet only 1.4% separated their mean shares of the vote.  According to Reid, “This means that having stronger credentials and more money, women were unable to parlay electoral assets into sizable electoral gains” Id. at 469.

Next, Reid examines an emerging consensus among gender politics scholars – that women accrue electoral benefits by affiliating or associating with state political parties.  Party affiliation seems to be a stronger voting cue than gender.  However, according to Reid, the role of political parties in judicial elections is more varied that it is in legislative or executive elections.  The difficulty with judicial elections is that among the states who elect state court judges, “15 out of 21 use nonpartisan elections where at a minimum, the party affiliation of candidates is removed from the ballot.  Given that state court races tend to be low-information races, voters will likely be unaware of the party affiliation of judicial candidates, and thus, might be inclined to draw upon sex stereotypes or gender generalizations as the basis for selecting between judicial candidates” Id. at 470. This leaves voters more likely to apply gender-based decisions.  Moreover, women who compete in partisan judicial races may not be able to count on party leaders to support their campaigns fully.  According to Reid, over the 10-year period studied, women competing in partisan state supreme court races received less money for their general election campaigns from party leaders and party organizations than did their male counterparts.  More specifically, on average, 11% of contributions came from party coffers, while party contributions to men amounted to approximately 22% of their total receipts.  This means that party leaders (at least in these races) favored male candidates.

Similar to media’s treatment of legislative candidates, the media may tend to treat women judicial candidates differently than men; however Reid acknowledges that additional scholarship is needed in this area. Reid argues that judgeships should be as accessible to women as they have always been to men and that a “judiciary that reflects the diversity of American society strengthens public acceptance of judicial decisions, as well as offering the possibility of enriching the quality of those decisions” Id. at 472.

Source Citation Reid, Traciel V. “Women Candidates and Judicial Elections.” Politics & Gender 6, no. 3 (2010): 465-474.


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